Rainy season

July 26th, 2013 · 1 comment · permalink

I’ve learned about myself that I am not a natural diarist, nor a blog-post composer. I have to force it out. And with the infrastructural challenges (as well as a certain measure of priority-setting), I’ve not had a good chance to get photos up here. I think, in the end, that photos will have to wait til I am either in Norway or home in Seattle. (I suspect the latter; I’ll be in Norway, after all, and would rather minimize screen time and maximize, well, everything else.)

Today was the last day of the first summer session of ILAE, which means it was my last day teaching. Goodbye was not easy. Parting from the fifteen or so kids in both Jen’s and my classes, as well as Jeff’s twenty (with whom I’ve spent three weeks), was quite the severance. I thought I’d have no trouble, but in the last analysis, I am, indeed, “nær til vannen” as the old Norwegians say. We spent the last two weeks in class—I had a class of nine, with six consistently attending—reading, discussing, thinking, writing, and performing literature, both prose & poetry. For our final performance today (eight students plus me were present) in front of the whole summer program and a number of parents, we read three poems in different styles, with some movement and mixed voices: two Emily Dickinson verses —”‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” and “The Brain is wider than the Sky”—and one by Zimbabwean poet Julius Chingono called “As I Go”). They were fantastic.

I’ll tell you, it doesn’t take long (but two weeks!) for kids like these to burrow into your heart. I have lots of thoughts that are, I think, better suited for conversation. But one thing: it’s very easy to overstate the difference between these young people and those in, say, Seattle at, say, The Northwest School (or any school). But it’s also very easy to understate the difference. It is, in fact, very difficult to locate & name exactly what it is; it has something to do with vast forces, both historical and political. For my part, I’ll carry these kids in my cells long & long.

Exceptions

September 14th, 2012 · 0 comments · permalink

For a spell now, a profound reading has been tumbling around in my noggin. The reading is of Creeley’s almost (big almost, assertively not definitely) over-treated poem “I Know a Man” alongside a little number from one of my new favorites, Eileen Myles’s Snowflake/Different Streets, called “(DESTROYING US)” (#9 in a loose and sexy series of 12 [if memory serves] on driving). I am newly in love with teaching high school, and most of my brain-time goes there, so I’ll simply put them side by side and let you love them, hoping you do so like I do, and later—when the world slows (how likely)—I’ll flesh out my reading, because there’s so much to say.

At the least, read ‘em aloud a buncha times.

Here’s Creeley in 1955:

I Know a Man

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Here’s Myles in 2012:

#9 (DESTROYING US)

by Eileen Myles

I don’t mean to romanticize
this thing that’s destroying
us all
I would happily drive
more than two hours
no
I would drive . . .

romanticize this thing
that’s destroying us
I would drive
a couple of hours
for friendship.

To Have Known Simultaneity—Rest, Adrienne Rich

March 29th, 2012 · 1 comment · permalink

Today is Thursday, March 29, 2012. In Seattle, it is raining, and well. The cedars, the firs, newly opened cherry blossoms, blooming magnolias: they accept the water without fuss. Tuesday, March 27, 2012, Adrienne Rich died. Wednesday, we all heard about it, whoever “we” are. For my part, I was struck still. She was, in spirit (in text), in the middle of my dissertation, pumping its heart muscle by hand. Her essay, “Woman and Bird,” from her 2003 essay collection, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, worked its way into the subtitle of my dissertation: Occasions of Wildness: Literature, Simultaneity, and Habitation. Simultaneity. That’s the word. In “Woman and Bird,” Rich describes a surprising encounter with a great blue heron just outside her house in a “straggling, villagelike, ‘unincorporated’ neighborhood” on the California coast. A heron shows up, ghost-like, and alights close-by on a neighbor’s roof. The bird affects her. She contemplates, in the essay, her conflicted urge to “name” it, to “stay with what I had seen” and wonders whether and how to avoid—or at least resist—the dangers of naming, with its subtle control, and the risks of not naming (one might hear here the last lines of “Diving into the Wreck” echoing: that “book of myths / in which / our names do not appear”). What do names do? What do they communicate? What do they leave out? The name “Great Blue Heron” affirms one’s encounter but it also collapses difference: it cannot communicate that bird, that very one, its particular life. The bird appears to Rich as radically other, a sort of shocking apparition (but not, she insists, “dreamlike”) that pauses the movement, the flow, of the workaday life (she first sees the bird after returning “from an errand” and “parking the car behind the house”). Or, at least, it startles one into looking at, recognizing, that movement anew, to see it actually and to ask what to do with it. My dissertation was about the possibilities of encounter, about the spaces that otherness opens up, the things that have (or not) happened, that do (or not) happen, that can happen when a member of one kind of habitation encounters a member of another, often a radically other, habitation. Rich says she encountered the bird “at a time when I was ready to begin something new, the nature of which I did not clearly see.” Poetry, she says, “begins this way: the crossing of trajectories of two (or more) elements that might not otherwise have known simultaneity.” To “know simultaneity”—that is the condition of encounter, of possibility (the same fairer house, perhaps, in which Emily Dickinson dwelt). But there is a danger to which I think Rich is powerfully attuned in the essay, and so offers this warning:

The Great Blue Heron is not a symbol. Wandered inadvertently or purposefully inland, maybe drought-driven, to a backyard habitat, it is a bird, Ardea herodia, whose form, dimensions, and habits have been described by ornithologists, yet whose tangible ways of being and knowing remain beyond my—or anyone’s—reach. If I spoke to it, it was because I needed to acknowledge in words the rarity and signifying power of its appearance, not because I thought it had come to me.

“Rich is tempted,” I wrote in my dissertation, “like many of us during encounters with novel, undomesticated creatures, to load symbols and intentions onto the large bird, to wishfully insist that it came for her.” But, I argued, “[t]he only responses available to her are, understandably (inevitably), products of her own paradigm—both her words of acknowledgment and the desire to acknowledge its ‘signifying power.’ It is impossible to say, for now, whether the heron has any comparable desires.” She recognizes in her response to the bird her habitual grasping after “adopted mysticisms,” “glib spirituality” which she derides as “white people’s tendency to sniff and taste, uninvited, and in most cases vampirize American Indian, or African, or Asian, or other ‘exotic’ ways of understanding.” This, to me, is a powerful way of thinking about encounter.

For all my intellectual adoration of Rich, I had only begun to read her work a year or so before I wrote those words in my dissertation, before her writing seeped into the middle of my thought. She had read at Central Washington University in Ellensberg, WA, in early June of 2009. My dear friend Arendt knew her poetry and insisted we go to the reading. I wanted to know some of her words, too, before I heard her, so I found some used books, including A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (and who, writing a dissertation on wildness, could pass by that title?). “The Images,” as the opening poem in that book, was the first Rich poem I ever read. I “stayed with” these two lines for days: “Two women sleeping / together have more than their sleep to defend.” I stay with it now. It still moves me to type it. That June, then, we drove over the Cascades on I-90, along with a former student who had become a friend, and there, I first encountered Adrienne Rich. We knew simultaneity. Afterward, I bought the book of essays I quote above and she signed it. Those who’ve seen Rich read know her reading is deep. It moves the ear drum (and so the mind drum, the heart drum, the many drums of the body) powerfully, though her physical stature was small.

Later that summer, my parents moved from our house in Forest City, Iowa, where I grew up, to Waverly, Iowa, where my dad got a new job at Wartburg College. I came back to Iowa in the same June to go through old things, to sort, to reminisce, to “stay with” the house a little before leaving it behind (I’ve no strong reason to visit Forest City again, though I’ve a complex love for it). On the plane, descending into Minneapolis, I wrote a poem, thinking about Erin Mouré, whom I’d met at a conference in Edmonton, Alberta, the previous May, and Charles Olson, whose phrase “an American / is a complex of occasions” (from “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld]“) also informed my dissertation title, and Rich, who is closest to the “her” in the last lines. I offer it, now, to her death:

A hermit is a civic institution—a
     complex
of occasions, too;

     the structure of self-
               making
               is inextricable (inexorable?)

from the pattern, the
                         self
                         even against the social current
     is a/part of the stream;

     techne then
     becomes the
     work of the one
     within the many—the discipline, the limit, the

     hermit hanging in the crowd—
     her hands weathered in the work of self-
          defense—

     fray the tether / the crowd falls up, away

     (space is but a broken plane, a
                                             rupture of the relative)

still
her
voice
vibrates a-
long the strand
in a vacuum—

          hear here:
          her slow speech exacts
          the company you keep(.)

My Own Private Idahohiowa

February 8th, 2012 · 0 comments · permalink

As an Iowan by birth and one who, as I put it recently in a tweet, loves his home state with a complicated, jealous love (and it is quite complicated, indeed—not all of it warm), I have a lot of thoughts and feelings when Iowa comes up in conversation. And, pat, on cue, it does every four years during the presidential caucus. Sometimes it comes up weird, in unexpected tones, as in a recent surrealist essay by a University of Iowa journalism professor who has (it would seem, but it wouldn’t seem) been living in Iowa for twenty years, and sometimes it comes up alright. But often as not, it comes up “Idaho” or “Ohio.” In more conversations on the West Coast than I’m comfortable with, when I reveal my origins, my interlocutor responds with something like this: “Oh, you mean, like, potatoes? Boise?” I shake my head, “Nope, farther in: corn, Des Moines,” or some such correction. In the East, the conversation is nearly identical: “I’m from Iowa, originally,” say I. “Oh, like, Cleveland? ‘Mistake of the Lake,’ eh?” Repeat. A lot of coastal folk have unlearned American geography, the art of seeing beyond the geographical front lawn (all that ocean-gazing, I suppose; I do it, too, out here. Plus, there’s the mountains: who can see beyond them?). This is no regional stereotype, for plenty of my fellow plains-folk have likewise grown near-sighted—not much exists beyond that long, low horizon.

All this to say, I recently invented a portmanteau that encapsulates the whole thing! I wish, like a patent, it could magicaly, fatally injure my student debt—that beast at which I poke with but a bobby pin. Alas, dreams for the weary.

No more ado: Here it is:

IDAHOHIOWA

Look at it. It’s a thing of beauty (and so a joy forever)! Each state, fully represented! Not a letter lacking! I’m taking quite a bit of pleasure in this—some might say an untoward amount. I’ve been shamelessly sharing it with all my students (even, in my theory course, to explain Saussure’s suggestion of how language conditions thought, emerging in concerete form between the nebulous planes of thought and sound, giving shape to things that otherwise might not exist).

The question remains of what, exactly, this word shall mean (certainly, though, it shall mean no one thing). It might indicate the phenomenon of geographical superimposition I just described; it might indicate the supreme pleasure of pronouncing words (Say it aloud: Idahohiowa! Say it again!); it might represent the kind of willful myopia—or, perhaps, the imposition of an astygmatic interpretive lens, such as one sees in the surrealist essay I mentioned above.

About that: my reading is rather simple. I don’t deny that, having been long, now, an example of the brain-drain our professor cites—young, engaged people tend to get educated there, then leave Iowa and love it from afar, without the persistent stench of hog confinements on humid summer nights—I find his wholesale evasion of anything resembling a complex view of Iowa rather disingenuous, and even borderline irresponsible. I’ll defend, as many have done (nicely outlined, I think, in this Chronicle of Higher Education piece), his right to speech, and even his right to “pick a fight” to get a dialogue going. I’d like to suggest, though, that you don’t pick a dialogical fight by foreclosing dialogue: he insists, in the Chronicle piece, that journalists aren’t responsible for PR, but for revealing “unspoken truths.” While many of his so-called “truths” are, I think, “true,” most of them, end up about as “true”—and as persistent—as Dali’s desert clocks.

Dali, "The Persistence of Memory"

His failure in the piece is its obsessive dependence on the superlative: “almost every . . . Mississippi town is the same”; “Just about everyone wears a hat”; “every Iowan” knows the “farmer’s tan”; Iowans don’t use turn signals “because everyone knows where everyone else is going”; “Just about every town” has a water tower; “Almost every Iowa house has a mudroom”; “Everyone strives to be middle class”; “everyone seems related”; “Everyone knows someone” who’s hit a deer; “Everyone loves Red Waldorf Cake” (for the record, I had to look it up); “everyone” is religious; and finally, the wonderfully non-journalistic “puff-piece,” “Every boy needs a dog” (but that’s, for once, our professor’s unqualified opinion).

Of course, by now, we’re not doing journalism, we’re doing surrealism. And once a reader makes that shift in perception, the essay becomes pretty interesting—I actually kind of like it! What the surrealist reading reveals, in the end, isn’t Iowa’s secret dystopian horror, but rather that American politics itself has become surreal, and in the worst way possible (I hardly need to mention the current GOP primaries—and thank you, Professor, Iowa has clearly not had a perverse influence on the insanity of that race). If you’re arguing that the character of Iowa(ns), however dismal, is somehow responsible for the character of American politics, and claiming some kind of journalistic moral high-ground as your defense, you’re smartly revealing how far we’ve come from a representative democracy that has any resemblance (!) to realism.

UPDATE:
A friend and fellow Iowan pointed me to this shirt (I knew I wasn’t the only one). “IDAWAHIO!” But I’ll modestly claim that my portmanteau kills no letter and is more fun to say.

Hypotheoretical

January 31st, 2012 · 0 comments · permalink

I’m teaching English 304 this quarter at UW (“History of Literary Criticism and Theory II” whose course description reads “Contemporary criticism and theory and its background in the New Criticism, structuralism, and phenomenology”). For the record, I didn’t get any certificate and I don’t claim any specialization in theory & criticism. A brief autobiographical fact: my undergraduate institution did not emphasize theory much at all. In my senior seminar, we read excerpts from Foucault’s History of Sexuality (in the context of the nineteenth century British novel of manners), but that was more or less it. So graduate school, for me, was a lot of catch-up in A) what theory IS, and B) what theories are out there.

When I got this class assignment, I was excited, primarily, because while I’m not always deeply confident in my own understanding of theory/theorists, I saw it as an opportunity to brush up, to remind myself of all this business. But, of course, I was also nervous, because I’m not always deeply confident in my own understanding of theory/theorists. So there’s that.

But so far, I’m really enjoying teaching this course. My students seem genuinely engaged (hopefully they wouldn’t disagree with that perception), and I’m finding class preparation quite rewarding. Today, however, I found it strangely easier—or, at least, more natural—to teach Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” despite some of his tricky language and dense concepts, than to teach Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Dispensing with Althusser, I want to ask, simply, what the hell is Eliot really after? To my mind, he presents some compelling ideas regarding how a “tradition” changes—indeed, the whole tradition—in response to the addition of a “new (really new)” work of art:

The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. (956-57)

Fine. Great. I’ll take that. I’m in. (With some caveats about how one really recognizes the “really new” work without risking a rather restrictive set of criteria for the canon and making heroes and, too often, Great White Sharks; and some more about where the “whole tradition” ends and all those other works that don’t qualify begin.) Moreover, the artist/writer as “medium” rather than some heroic singularity: that’s fine too. Whatever. But beyond that, and a couple more niceties, I’m not sure where Eliot goes. In his Impersonal theory,

the mind of the mature poet differs from that o the immature one not precisely in any valuation of ‘personality’, not being necessarily more interesting, or having ‘more to say’, but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations. (958)

Ok, new combinations of feelings. Fair enough, with another little caveat—I suspect the “more finely perfected medium” is, by virtue of being more finely perfect, is still more or less worshipped as a literary hero, whether his readers will or no—but I can still buy this as a compelling formulation, or, at the very least, suggestion. But this follow up, several paragraphs later, is, to me, silly and underdeveloped: “The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all” (960). Wait, what? How do you teach that? Nowhere in the essay has Eliot distinguished between “emotions” and “feelings.” Am I missing something? Are “feelings” simpler, more affectively immediate experiences or sensations that combine to form more complex “emotions”? Unclear. And from there, Eliot unravels: nowhere is anything further defined (specifically, what the hell the poem is, then): it is “a concentration,” merely (of what?) and the bad poet becomes “personal” because he inappropriately mixes up where he should be conscious and where unconscious, etc. Then, the kicker: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality” (961). Well, then. AN ESCAPE INTO WHAT AND WHERE? And, alas, Eliot’s deeply personal ending: “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape these things” (961). Ah, if only, Tom, we could feel emotions like you can. Shucks and b’golly.

References to the essay are from the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd Ed., Eds. Vincent B. Leitch, et al., W. W. Norton & Co. (New York, 2010).

Variations on Nothing to Worry About

January 27th, 2012 · 0 comments · permalink

Among Bashō’s haiku is this one:

Such a hangover!
Nothing to worry about,
with cherry blossoms

And so, here, in a winter trying to be winter, and far, yet (though not so very far), from the cherry blossoms that comfort—or, rather, re-mind—Bashō, I offer these small variations:

Such a hangover!
Nothing to worry about,
with knotted cedars

Such a hangover!
Nothing to worry about,
with broken whistles

Such a hangover!
Nothing to worry about,
with thirteen blackbirds

Such a hangover!
Nothing to worry about,
with those musk oxen

The “It” Problem

December 9th, 2011 · 0 comments · permalink

Been thinking about two things, so I’ll make them a single post, “fatiscebat, cleaving and holding only by strings of root,” as G. M. Hopkins might’ve put it—and very thin strings at that:

The first thing:
Why it’s so dehumanizing to call a person (especially a child) “it” versus a gendered pronoun (this is a particularly English problem). Given our physio-chemical makeup, our is-ness, we are, indeed, things; we are matter coalesced into a being (or, more accurately, a collective/network/hive/insert-your-favorite-plural-concept-here of co-operating beings, from bacteria to mites to mitochondria). The discomfort of “it” is that it fails to account for—or actively discounts—that misty surplus of our matter: consciousness. When language reveals itself (and this is the rub: it reveals itself in our very utterance of it) to be inadequate to the task of representing this feeling of “humanness,” or when it reveals its capacity to, well, erase the prefigured dignity we tend to attach to our own condition, we experience something like a mental stinging sensation. I often teach Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in which a child involuntarily suffers constant, abject misery for the sake of what appears (with the reader’s help) to be a beautiful, loving, kind, pleasant, rich, abundant, yet complex society. It’s an exchange on “strict and absolute” (282) terms: the single child suffers inexplicable torment so that all the rest of the people can enjoy the fruits of their civilization, its scholars’ wisdom, its noble architecture, its abundant harvest, its tender friendships, etc., etc., in perfect (but complex, responsible, the narrator insists) happiness. Some students always fixate, and understandably, on the fact that the child is referred to as “it”: its gender is unrecognizable, and this is, to many students and readers, abominable (for obvious and rather sad reasons). Here’s a passage: “It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually” (281). This is, predictably, a particularly potent dehumanization. The description would be shocking enough with a “human” pronoun (big scare quotes, there), but the rhetorically repetitive “it” completes and intensifies the malevolence we are led to ascribe to the perpetrators: the “happy” citizens of Omelas.

What I’m getting at is this: while most readers—most people—assume a priori that it’s reprehensible to dehumanize individual human beings by calling them “it,” it’s not, or doesn’t seem to be, dehumanizing to call a collective of people—say, a culture, a society, an organization—”it”. Our collective discomfort with “it” in reference to people is still concentrated around this phenomenon that has proven frustratingly difficult to locate reliably: the individual “person.” What is it? Where is it? (Whoops.) Strangely, the problem of war, or violent, inter-cultural conflict of any kind, seems to strip these issues to the bone (there’s a metaphor borrowed from the individual body): cultures (or nations), as “its,” are worth preserving, yet they do so at the expense of many individuals to whom we refer with “human,” gendered pronouns (again, gender’s an English problem: we suck at it). The simple answer, I think, is that, as of yet, we seem to have trouble experiencing collectivity consciously outside of the experience of our own individual consciousness. In other words, the illusion of individuality, in the West, at least, has become so entrenched to be unquestionable. We hardly realize (or actively deny) the degree to which the social and historical conditions in which we live shape our experience of our own consciousness. “It,” the widest and most welcoming of pronouns, begins to scrape away the film, lottery ticket style.

Which (sort of) leads to the second thing:
This morning, Emma Marris (whose book, Rambunctious Garden, I’ve been meaning to read) and a few others published an op-ed in the New York Times on the increasingly accepted designation of our current geological epoch as the “Antropocene.” While some critics, they say, have argued that this is an inappropriately hubristic term (could little old we have that much influence on big ol’ Earth?), and others cannot shake their belief in the primordial, non-human Nature (“all human changes are degradation of a pristine Eden”), they argue that the term offers the opportunity to challenge the modes in which we inhabit the world, and the measures on which we understand our interactions with our habitat. It’s a new chance, they say, for “a new, more positive and forward-looking environmentalism.” It’s a chance to move beyond looking for or protecting that ghostly demarcation: wild(er)ness. As a wilderness enthusiast and would-be scholar (my dissertation is on the topic), I’m sympathetic to their approach. It is indeed time we recognize the depth and pervasiveness of our species role in shaping the earth (though let us not forget how much more deeply it is still shaped by bacteria, by slime molds, by interstellar materials we know not yet)—the concept of a non-human wilderness is an illusion: even the wilderness areas we love to love are long past their “primordial” age. We met these places when they were middle-aged, not pre-pubescent. But, then, even that metaphor falls apart: the whole category of development and maturation needs to go. The history of the planet, and its strange capacity to contain life, is so far beyond the meager purview of our historical imagination that attempts to characterize the patterns of ecosystems’ growth and decay seem almost foolish. So, yes, the sobering title, “Anthropocene,” ought to be defended. But I’m not sure, yet, about how this collective (there, there’s the “string of root” that holds this clod together) effort to “manage” or engineer our planet’s environments ought to proceed.

I do think that Ursula Le Guin is an interesting place to start.

The Neverending Half

December 3rd, 2011 · 0 comments · permalink

I’d like to take a moment to tinker with the old cliché “Is the cup half empty or half full?” It’s meant, of course, to ask whether one is a pessimist or an optimist. (An aside: my grandpa used to quote a Norwegian witticism that went something like this: “Var det ikke for optimisten, pessimisten ville ikke vite hvor lykkelig han ikke er,” which renders, in English, “Were it not for the optimist, the pessimist wouldn’t know how happy he isn’t.” Another aside: also relevant is the fridge magnet that insists “It doesn’t matter whether the glass is half empty or half full, as long as there’s whiskey in it.”) At any rate (and I know I need not waste your time with this explication), the optimist supposedly views the glass as “half full,” indicating that it could be on its way to full—so the optimist hopes for more, even holds out a sliver of belief that more will magically appear to make the glass full. The pessimist, meanwhile, who sees the glass “half empty,” sees the situation as hopelessly doomed to emptiness. This is all rather obvious.

But the metaphor is shit. No one ever talks about what it means to be holding the glass in the first place. What is this glass for? What philosophical ideals are actually at work in either descriptive scenario? Let’s say it’s a glass of [favorite beverage]. Both sides of the cliché measure the contents of the glass against a potential condition: fullness or emptiness. If you’re holding it, and you say, “Well I’ll be! My glass of [favorite beverage] is half full!” that presumably means you’re measuring it against what it was: it used to be full, now it’s half full. But what’s the implication? That you have half a glass more to drink? Or that it’s time to fill up the other half? Toward what potential condition does the half-full glass tend? Meanwhile, your friend, the pessimist, holds a glass and shouts, “Hot damn! My glass of [favorite beverage] is half empty!” The pessimist presumably laments the approach to emptiness. But really, the pessimist is declaring that the glass is emphatically not fully (!) empty. Moreover, both emptiness and fullness are themselves measured against the other: fullness can only move toward emptiness, and emptiness can only move toward fullness. So if the pessimist (O woe!) finally achieves the impossible condition of emptiness (impossible because the cliché freezes us in eternal stasis, much like Keats’s urn-bound pastoral lovers, forever caught in terrific suspension prior to their kiss), the return to fullness—the refill—is the only possible direction (other than into the nothing). In other words, the supposed pessimist in the cliché seems to me the only one to enjoy the act of drinking [favorite beverage]. What does one presume to do with glass whose philosophical ideal is the condition from which movement toward emptiness is the only possibility?

Stevens, too, is relevant here:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Bottoms up.

On Occupying the Intellect, Raising Armchair Beeves, & the Poetics of Solidarity

October 17th, 2011 · 0 comments · permalink

There are a hundred responses to the strange harumph-harumphing coming from otherwise progressive thinkers on #OWS, but I like, for convenience, Brendan Kiley’s defense here and Glenn Greenwald’s defense here (this one from a while back). Some progressives, like Grist‘s David Roberts, began critically and changed their minds. This is compelling, even if it might come with caveats.

Indeed, there’s a weird rugged individualist streak that’s seeped into the commentary—commentary born of acute minds. This attitude of “tell me what I’m protesting for and I’ll join” or “I’ll just keep doing my own thing, relying on my own, particular interactions with others to inspire change until I see a strategic policy plan” seems pretty self-serving. Maybe it’s easier to continue what one’s doing because it feels immediate, easier to measure. For my part, I’ve been a teacher for more than 600 state-college students over the last six years (and these students adamantly do NOT live in a “fake”, ivory-towered world; they lead real lives, and many have exceedingly real troubles), and I’ve made the argument that my teaching is my form of activism, my contribution to the cultivation of critical and careful thinkers to do work in a corrosive and beautiful world. So it’s not necessarily the attitude that frustrates me, but rather the urge to express it and pretend it’s just to say “You go! But I won’t.” This is not a pretentious position to hold, but I do think it’s a pretentious position to broadcast. If you don’t dig it, don’t do it. No need to say so and hold (whether you mean to or not) the holier perch. For another thing, it’s not “you’re with us or against us”—one scarecrow I’ve seen: I haven’t spoken to anybody who’s said that; on the contrary: the prevailing message I hear is support it if it resonates with your ethic or experience or expectations, don’t if it doesn’t; or, if it doesn’t, do some more research, look to this problem, look to this possible solution. Look around you! Look at the experience of this person, this group of people, talk to more people involved or at risk. If you still don’t wanna throw the weight of your voice behind it, no problem. But I wish we wouldn’t shoot others’ feet because we don’t wanna engage in exactly what we’re waiting for: helping grow and mature the movement precisely by working together to create specific objectives to follow on the heels of outrage. And my god, please don’t rely on media reports to glean the OWS message. If it looks like merely another herd mentality to you, I have to believe you’ve not spoken to nearly enough people involved.

In a lot of what I’ve read, solidarity as a justified end is written off (usually wholly unmentioned) as less important than some hand-in-glove policy agenda. This strikes me as intellectually lazy. This is a SOCIAL, not an individual movement. OWS is a long overdue expression of specific collective outrage, especially after the 30-year exhaustion of the usual routes to large-scale political change—a rough beast of a camel whose back was finally broken by these iron straws: Barack Obama’s ultimate complicity in a shattered, plutocratic system, which itself heralded the deeper and deeper breakdown of the congressional process in Washington, sabotaged as it is by corporate influence (cemented by the “Citizens United” ruling), the “Old Boys’/Yacht Club” mentality, and a legislature that will never legislate more regulation of its friends in “industry” for the sake of health or environment.


[Photo by Eli Sanders]

I haven’t been deeply involved in OWS or Occupy Seattle. I’ve only once brought my body to the movement. I saw some amazing things, some people who’ve been destroyed by the political conditions of the twentieth century given a platform that has been systematically denied them. I saw “normal” people among the usual anarchists, and socialists among tea-partiers (not many of the latter, to be sure), all sharing a care for the suffering our political system causes. And I saw some annoying things. I don’t love chanting slogans (or at least the same ol’ ones all the time, over and over). The “People’s Mic” is vulnerable to the thoughtless, the self-interested, the whiny, the foolish, the unsure, the person-who-thinks-(wrongly)-they-can-rouse-the-rabble, the dedicated Ron Paul supporter, the LaRoucher. Some of these can sap the spirit of the movement, can diffuse the clarity of purpose. And I cannot support calls for violence, or provocation of police force. These things happen. They are risks. But I will not sit back and help snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by offering my scrawny beeves from the pulpit in my armchair. This IS poetry: this is poetry of the body. Not (only) the kind that might happen in the yoga studio, or on the dance floor, or on the stage, or on the page, or in the lovers’ bed. This is poetry of the body politic. Poetry of the bodies.

It might not work. Seldom has poetry “worked” in this way. It, after all, has been said to “make nothing happen.” I love that positive nothing. But while I’ve got mine (for now), solidarity is enough for a start. It is a poetics. Solidarity for the people and values suffering from the fundamental, global injustice of our political and economic system, and solidarity for the people working on this all over the world under conditions that a functioning intellect should quickly recognize as devastatingly close to hopeless. I will support them, even if part of that support means waiting in humility, enduring ambiguity, absorbing the uglier parts of the public, the dredges of the dialogue. “If anything of moment results,” wrote William Carlos Williams to open Spring and All, “so much the better.” It’s a risk. Let’s take it.

(And sorry for all the adjectives and adverbs in here.)

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